The Science And Religion Behind Walking
“Walking is man’s best medicine” – Hippocrates.
Walking is a primary way of locomotion for human beings. In the archaic era of the stone age, it was also the only means of traveling from one place to another. As the wheels of time turned, walking was no longer necessary, but it is still an indispensable part of human life.
It was a long time ago that people began walking as a way to build their physical fitness and stamina.
The act of walking has a religious and spiritual connection as well. People often take religious pilgrimages, during which they choose to walk a certain distance of their journey. The walking part of the journey is usually done barefoot as a way of showing religious zeal.
The Importance Of Walking During Pilgrimages
A pilgrimage is a holy journey that people undertake to reach a level of spiritual or religious elevation. Many describe it as the journey of self-realization where one finds the purpose and meaning of life. People undertake pilgrimages for several reasons. Some are looking for penance, while some want to establish a deeper connection with God. Some may look at it as an excursion that combines their love for travel with their passion for religion. In any case, a pilgrimage means something to everyone who undertakes it and fulfills different goals for a person.
The central feature could be a shrine located atop a mountain, within a cave, or inside a holy building. It is more or less mandatory to walk up to such sacred structures from a certain distance beyond which pilgrims cannot bring any vehicle. Walking serves various purposes while completing a pilgrimage.
Display of Religious Faith
The leg of your pilgrimage that you complete by walking may be arduous and physically demanding at times, for the route to the holy shrines may pass through mountains, forests, or caves. Walking through this route and successfully reaching one’s destination is a sign of being able to sustain in unfavorable situations. Pilgrims see this as a way of displaying their strong faith in God or their spiritual Guru (teacher) or a great saint whom they may revere.
It is like a right of passage, which makes you believe in your strengths and devotion towards the Almighty.
Experiencing The Holy Aura
The atmosphere in any place of religious importance is abuzz with positive vibes. Devout pilgrims firmly believe that the blessings of all Gods permeate the surroundings of the destination of their pilgrimage. Walking within the premises of such a holy place and allowing these vibes to engulf you will fill you with a sensation of happiness, achievement, and tranquility.
Making Spiritual Acquaintances
People of the same religious faith often undertake pilgrimages in a group. Going in groups increases the enthusiasm to complete the voyage successfully. Walking together allows people to share their religious ideas and beliefs. This exchange of knowledge helps enlighten the mind and souls of pilgrims and carve a path towards their spiritual goal.
Spending Time In Natural Surroundings
Places of pilgrimage are often tombs or birthplaces of great saints or places where historical religious events took place in the past. Lush green forests, hilly pathways, or natural caves may be a part of the journey for those who wish to visit holy places of pilgrimage.
Walking on such scenic routes during pilgrimage gives people the opportunity to spend time close to mother nature, a rare luxury living the quintessential urban lifestyle. This makes the journey more appealing to the religious folk, who also nurture a passion for adventure and traveling.
The idea of going on pilgrimages has been around for centuries. Several religious scriptures like the Bhagawad Geeta, Vedas, Quran, and the Holy Bible speak at length about pilgrimage.
Some Famous Pilgrimages That People Undertake Barefoot
Irrespective of their religious faith, every person who sets out for a pilgrimage bears an emotion of utmost devotion and pure, selfless joy within their heart. Several places of religious importance have become popular destinations of pilgrimage. Each site has its unique beauty and significance.
Among India’s most-awaited and well-known pilgrimages is the Pandharpur Wari, which happens annually in the western state of Maharashtra. Numerous people gather at various regions in Maharashtra, from where they commence their journey to Pandharpur by walking bare feet. The Wari is a significant celebration for devotees Lord Vitthal and his wife Goddess Rukhmini, whose home Pandharpur is.
Sant Dyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram were two of the most revered saints from Maharashtra who strived towards the upliftment of society. The padukas (sandals) of Sant Dyaneshwar travel from the rural town of Alandi, while the sandals of Sant Tukaram travel from a place called Dehu to Pandharpur during the Wari. Warkaris (People who participate in Wari) design a special palanquin for these sandals, which they then bear on their shoulders as they walk to Pandharpur. Warkaris carrying the sandals of various other saints join in, and the sea of people walks with religious fervor towards Pandharpur.
Warkaris recite chants and songs commemorating several saints of Maharashtra and honoring Lord Vitthal and Goddess Rukhmini. Several people wear necklaces made of basil beads, adorn their foreheads with a black teeka, and dress up in white attire for the Wari.
Wealthy patrons who are devotees of Lord Vitthal arrange for food, water, and healthcare facilities for all Warkaris for 21 days taken to complete the Wari. People leave behind all social distinctions and join hands to participate in this holy pilgrimage. Wari is an experience beyond words that imparts a sense of spiritual fulfillment to each Warkari. People seek the blessings of Lord Vitthal and Goddess Rukhmini and pray for a fruitful life without obstacles towards the end of Wari.
Camino de Santiago
Camino de Santiago is the Spanish term for ‘Way of St.James.’ It is one of the oldest and most famous pilgrimages among followers of the Christian faith. People have been journeying to the cathedral in Spain, which is rumored to hold the remains of St.James.
Christian scriptures suggest that devotees of St.James first began visiting his shrine in the Galicia province of Spain in the 9th century. Over the years, several routes have transpired from all across Europe leading to the burial site. Camino Francés, Camino del Norte, Camino Primitivo, and Camino Portugues are among the major routes of the pilgrimage. Several other more minor ways originating from various other towns and villages eventually merge with these major routes. Many people participate in the walk to take in nature’s bounty of lush green patches, mountains, and other scenic sights on the way.
The purpose of this pilgrimage varies from person to person. Some people undertake this journey to discover the meaning of life; some want to reconnect with themself, some may be repenting for their sins from the past, while some may join for no other purpose but pure religious zeal. Each pilgrim has to procure a credential or a ‘pilgrim’s passport,’ which is a document that allows certain privileges to those who participate in Camino de Santiago. The credential is stamped at every town or place where the pilgrim has taken a break en route. Pilgrims hostels are special facilities that offer overnight accommodation to those who have credentials.
Each person who successfully walks a distance of 100 km to the shrine of St.James or reaches there, after covering a distance of 200 km on the bicycle, gets a Compostela (certificate of appreciation and completion of the pilgrimage).
Vaishno Devi Mandir (temple of Goddess Vaishnavi) is one of the most famous religious places among North Indians. Legend has it that Goddess Vaishnavi traveled to a remote cave in the mountains for spiritual progress. It was in this very cave that she merged her material body with the cosmic universe and entered the world of eternity. This cave lies in present-day Katara, which is a town in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Goddess Vaishnavi is said to be a reincarnation of the combined powers of Goddesses Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Parvati.
Devotees have converted Her cave into a holy shrine where crowds of people visit to seek Her blessings. The cave is situated in the mountains at an altitude of 5200 feet from sea level. Devotees begin walking from the small town of Katra to cover a distance of 12 kilometers by foot to reach the cave. Many devotees choose to discard their footwear and walk bare feet during the holy journey. Chants of Jai Mata di (may the victory be yours, Oh mother) echo through the valley as hundreds of devotees undertake the journey to visit the shrine of Goddess Vaishnavi.
It is a widespread belief that Goddess Vaishnavi grants all the wishes that her devotees ask from her. Like a mother who never refuses a child, Goddess Vaishnavi is generous towards her children (devotees). Therefore she is fondly known as Mata Rani (Queen Mother).
Tirupati is among the holiest cities of India. It is home to temples of several Hindu deities but is most well known for the temple of Lord Venkateswara. The sacred shrine lies cozily tucked amid the hills of Tirumala, roughly 860 meters from sea level.
Fondly known as Balaji, Lord Venkateswara is, in fact, a reincarnation of the Hindu Almighty Lord Vishnu. The Puranas, which are one of the most revered Hindu scriptures, describe the Tirupati temple as the supreme place in the entire universe and Lord Venkateswara to be the greatest Hindu deity. The Puranas describe the legend of the origin of the Tirupati temple. Lord Vishnu once took the form of Adivaraha, who was half-human and half-boar and went to battle the ferocious demon Hiranyaksha who was dragging the Earth towards the gates of Hell. After defeating the demon, Adivaraha lifted the Earth on his tusks and requested Lord Brahma (the creator of the universe) to restore the happenings on the Earth. Adivaraha then ordered to summon the hill of kridachala and place it at the exact spot where the Tirupati temple of Lord Balaji is present. Adivaraha then assumed the identity of the calm and composed Lord Venkateswara, and He still watches over the Earth and blesses His followers from the hills of Tirumala.
Thousands of devotees undertake the trek towards the main shrine through the lush green Tirumala hills. People shed their egos, anger, jealousy, and all other negativity surrounding them as they complete this spiritual trek. Some even choose to forego their footwear to appease the Realm’s protector, Lord Venkateswara.
The Amarnath Yatra (Journey to Amarnath) is among the top pilgrimages in India. Legend has it that Lord Shiva narrated the Amar Katha, which was the secret to his immortality to Goddess Parvati in a cave away from the world’s prying eyes. He did not even carry the most important things along, even left his son Lord Ganesha behind. This cave, which lies in the present-day State of Kashmir in India, is the shrine of Amarnath. It lies roughly 3,888 meters above sea level, between the snowy Himalayan peaks.
Inside the cave is a naturally formed snow stalagmite created every winter when the water falling from the cave’s roof freezes over. Legend has it that the dimensions of this stalagmite change with the waxing and waning moon. During the summer months, the stalagmite gradually melts till the following winter. This stalagmite is important as devotees consider it to be the Shiva linga (the religious symbol of Lord Shiva.
The route towards the shrine is essentially a trek through pathways that are surrounded by snow. Helicopter rides are now available for pilgrims who are unable to make this journey on foot. Devotees chant mantras (holy verses) to get encouragement for completing their spiritual journey. It is said that the one who completes the Amarnath Yatra experiences a pleasant spiritual warmth engulfing them.
The Government of India has formed a regulatory body to monitor every aspect of the Amarnath yatra and look after the wellbeing of all pilgrims. Interested pilgrims must fill out various forms and undergo mandatory health checkups to participate in the Amarnath Yatra.
The yatra is a religious awakening for many who have set out on the journey to discover themselves. The more ardent devotees complete the yatra walking without footwear as a form of devotion to Lord Shiva.
A pilgrimage is a turning point in the life of many devotees as they discover a new aspect in their spiritual journey. It is not the journey but the intent that matters during a pilgrimage. Walking barefoot is a symbol of devotion towards the Almighty and a portrayal of the person’s determination and will to sacrifice.
The Science Of Walking Barefoot
A relaxing foot massage is a great way to rejuvenate yourself physically and mentally. Several medical disorders respond pretty well to foot massages done in a particular manner. Reflexology is a form of alternative medicine therapy that bases its treatment principles on applying pressure across several points on the feet and hands. Contrary to popular belief, there is a considerable difference between the techniques of reflexology and foot massage.
According to the science of reflexology, the feet are rich in nerve endings that correspond to various organs in the body. Applying pressure on the feet systematically activates the nerve endings and alters the disturbed functions of the corresponding organs.
Another form of alternative therapy focusing on similar principles as reflexology is acupressure. However, unlike reflexology, acupressure points are present all over the body.
Walking on grass, in mud, or on a sandy beach has similar effects due to the pressure on the feet. Doctors often advise patients to dedicate some time to practice barefoot walking to activate and stimulate nerve endings of specific organs.
Acupressure footwear, when worn, applies consistent pressure of mild intensity just enough to stimulate your nerve endings. Many parks and gardens have acupressure pathways that are built using cobblestones. People often walk on these pathways barefoot to experience acupressure on the go! It is a widespread belief that walking on fresh and green grass has a positive effect on our mental wellbeing as well.
Anxiety, depression, blood pressure disorders, digestive disorders, generalized fatigue, pain related to cancer, cardiac disorders respond well to reflexology and acupressure. However, they are not, in any way, a replacement for mainstream medical or surgical treatment.
Considered to have their roots in China, both reflexology and acupressure are unique arts that need practice and patience to learn. Before choosing either therapy, consult with your doctor and visit a certified therapist only.
Walking barefoot, which was the primary means of commuting millions of years ago, has returned to our lives as a form of therapy. Walking is a good exercise for your physical fitness, but walking barefoot will act on your mind and soul too.
The reasons that motivate you to walk barefoot may range from being health conscious to being hardcore religious. Irrespective of your intention, walking barefoot will only give you positive results in every aspect of life.